Learning · Philosophy · Psychology

Book review: Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish pioneer in psychotherapy. He was developing his own insights into psychology in Austria prior to World War 2. In the war he was arrested by the Nazis and transported to Auschwitz. In his book “Man’s search for meaning” he relays the experiences of surviving in a concentration camp and his insights into what motivates humans, which he gained as a result of those experiences.
There is no way I could do justice to the horrors he experienced in the camps in a few brief lines in a blog post. I highly recommend reading the book, it’s not very long and will lend far more depth to the few excerpts I am relaying below. It is harrowing but well worth while.
Instead I have focused on the psychological insights and some of the quotes that really struck me personally. (Please note that he tends to frame everything in the male third person, so his references are often to “man” but he means it generically as all humans, men and women). Below I put my own words and thoughts in italics and quotes from Frankl are in plain type.
Frankl developed his own form of therapy he called logotherapy. He believed that the striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must be fulfilled by him alone.
Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on condition that his suffering has a meaning.
Suffering
In the first half of the book he describes the experience of the concentration camps. In a situation of such depravity, suffering becomes the central theme of most of the prisoners lives, and while his work focuses on meaning in the broader sense, he is particularly insightful in his understanding of human suffering.
And while he is clear we don’t have to suffer to find meaning in our lives, most of us will probably experience some form of unavoidable suffering in the course of our lives. In that sense his insights and challenges to us are highly relevant.
One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. The question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked. 
We had to learn ourselves and for the more, we had to teach the despairing man, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.
Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. 
Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man maybe required simply to accept his fate, to bear his cross.
When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
For us as prisoners these thoughts were not speculations for removed from reality. They were the only ones that could be of help to us. They kept us from dispair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had past the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the obtaining of some aim through the act of creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embrace the widest cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.
Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us [that bearing suffering with dignity in itself gave meaning to the life and suffering], we refused to minimize or alleviate the camps tortures by ignoring them or harbouring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized it’s hidden opportunities for achievement.
There was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
Frankl’s insight was that humans in these extreme situations often need a very specific reason to carry on living, “what life was asking of them”. For him it was his manuscript explaining some of the concepts of his logotherapy which had been taken from him as he entered the camp. For others it was to be reunited with a relative who needed them. 
In Nietzsche’s words, “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”.
Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. He can only answer to life by answering for his own life.
It’s up to him to decide whether he should interpret his life’s task as being responsible to society or to his own conscience.
In the concentration camps we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualised depends on decisions [he makes] but not on conditions [that he faces].
Optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of human potential, at its best, allows for
1. Turning suffering into human achievement and accomplishment
2. Deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better
3. Deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action
Finding meaning in life
According to Frankl meaning can be discovered in three different ways
1. By creating a work or doing a deed
2. By experiencing something (eg. goodness, truth, beauty) or encountering someone (loving them)
3. By the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering
In no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering.
Being human is not freedom from conditions [that afflict us], but it is the freedom to take a stand [in our attitude] towards the conditions.
What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.
Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.
It is a dangerous misconception that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
What is demanded of man is not to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. 
Insights into broader psychological issues
More and more a psychiatrist is approached by patients who confront him with human problems rather than neurotic symptoms.
Self actualisation is possible only as a side effect of self transcendence.
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the most core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualised but yet ought to be actualised. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualise these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.
Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you’re going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on carrying it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run I say! – Success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.
Our current mental hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.
Happiness, faith, hope, love, optimism, laughter, success, all of these cannot be commanded or ordered or pursued; they must ensue from a reason to feel these things. Once one has a reason, these things follow automatically. A human does not pursue happiness but pursues a reason to become happy, through actualising the potential meaning inherent and dormant in any given situation.
Practical insights
Frankl focuses often on reframing for someone, what their life might mean if seen from a different perspective. Eg, imagining looking back on this moment from your deathbed. Imagine your life was vastly different without the situations you found your self in, would it still have the same meaning?
People often suffer from anticipatory anxiety. It is a characteristic of this fear that it produces precisely that of which the patient is afraid. Forced or excessive intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes. 
For example some struggling with insomnia gets more and more anxious about not being able to go to sleep and can’t go to sleep as they attempt to force themselves to go to sleep.
Logotherapy makes use of “forced intention” or “paradoxical intention” to address this. For example in the sleep example, a patient can be asked to focus very intently on staying awake for as long as possible. 
In conclusion
This is a book I would recommend to everyone. It recasts our existential quest for meaning into a much more concrete, practical responsibility to be our best in the circumstances we find ourselves, no matter how extreme.

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